Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Backdoor Slider Players of the Decade

We've reached the end of professional baseball's 14th full decade of action. It's time for some lists. (Have we decided on a name for the decade that's about to end? The Double-Zeroes? The Double-O's? Or my favorite, the Aughts? I'm going with the Aughts.)

I've followed baseball in the Aughts with rabid intensity, from beginning to end. Since I love lists, I decided this was the perfect time, between now and New Year's Eve, to reveal my picks for bests and worsts of the decade. We'll begin with the top position players of the last 10 seasons.

My only qualifying criteria for this list: players must have appeared in 1,200 games this decade. My rationale is that number equates to roughly 7.5 seasons, and to be considered one of the best players in a decade, that seems like a fair number. A lot of excellent players were kept off this list as a result, but hopefully the 2010s will be their decade. Players are eligible for positions where they played the majority of their games. I've created first, second and third teams, with extended sections on first-teamers and brief sections on second and third-teamers.

I decided the best way to compare players and rank them was to use 162-game averages. It wasn't fair to use season averages when some guys missed almost entire seasons due to injury. Missed time is not reflected as deeply in the 162-game averages, but it still gives the best sense about that player's talents during what should be the best part of their career. I tried to stick with stats and awards for these rankings, but players that were part of excellent teams had an advantage. The averages listed with each player are in this order: batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage/on-base plus slugging.

One final note before we dive in: I didn't take alleged or confirmed steroid use into consideration in formulating this lineup. Three members of my final team are tied to PEDs in one way or another. I won't rehash my feelings on PEDs here, but what happened on the field happened. We can't change any of it. All we have are the games and our memories. Just know that Barry Bonds won't appear here because he played fewer than 1,000 games this decade and for no other reason.

Without further ado, the Backdoor Slider Players of the Decade:

CATCHER: Jorge Posada (1302 GP) .283/.386/.492/.878 - 26 HR, 102 RBI, 85 R, 156 H, 2 SB - 5x All Star - 2x World Series Champion ('00, '09)

Joe Girardi left the Yankees after winning the '99 World Series, allowing Posada to blossom as one of the premier hitting catchers in baseball. In '00, he caught a career-high 142 games, slugged 28 homers and helped propel a somewhat-mediocre Yankees team a World Series title. Posada has been so reliable since, hitting just about anywhere in the order and displaying power from either side of the plate. He's never been great defensively, however he's dealt with so many different pitchers and the Yankees only missed the playoffs once all decade. In '08, in the second year of a four-year, $52 million contract, Posada went down with a debilitating shoulder injury and many feared his days as a catcher were over. This would not be the case. He caught 100 games in '09, hit 22 home runs and started every non-A.J. Burnett postseason game as the Yankees finished the Aughts with World Series title bookends. While two other Yankees on this first team will be more decorated by history, Posada is just as much of an icon for a generation of Yankees fans who know him as their catcher. He also has massive, comically-huge ears.

2ND TEAM: Ivan Rodriguez (1219 GP) .298/.335/.477/.812 - 22 HR, 86 RBI, 88 R, 184 H, 9 SB - 6x All Star, 5x Gold Glove, '03 NLCS MVP - World Series Champion ('03)

3RD TEAM: Jason Varitek (1208 GP) .257/.347/.431/.778 - 20 HR, 80 RBI, 69 R, 141 H, 3 SB - 3x All Star, 1 Gold Glove - 2x World Series Champion ('04, '07)

There weren't many catchers that qualified under my 1,200 game rule. As a matter of fact, these three were pretty much the only ones. That's quite telling about the demands of the position in the modern game. I gave Posada the nod over Pudge because of the former's consistency, and I think Pudge's best work came in the decade before. Pudge has bounced around a bit over the last few seasons, even playing with Posada in '08. I'd rather Varitek was bouncing around at this point, but the Red Sox and their fans aren't so lucky.

FIRST BASE: Albert Pujols (1399 GP) .334/.427/.628/1.055 - 42 HR, 129 RBI, 124 R, 199 H, 7 SB - 3x N.L. MVP, '01 N.L. ROY, 8x All Star, 1 Gold Glove, '04 NLCS MVP - World Series Champion ('06)

I highly doubt the Cardinals knew what they were getting when their head scout announced via conference call that Pujols would be their 13th round selection in the '99 draft. A little over 10 years later, we're discussing Pujols in the same breath with guys like Ruth, Aaron, Mays and Williams. Don't for a second believe that's hyperbole. His '01 rookie campaign was one of the best in history while playing at least 39 games at four different positions. Moved to first permanently in '04, Pujols is baseball's best defensive first baseman not named Youkilis. Pujols clubbed the famous home run in the '05 NLCS that briefly destroyed Brad Lidge's career. He was the leader of a ragtag '06 Cardinals championship crew that shocked the baseball world. He's only finished lower than fourth in the N.L. MVP voting once. Since overcoming some elbow issues, Pujols has entered into legend over the past two years, sending opposing pitchers into shaking fits and causing many an opposing manager to go gray. Extrapolating his numbers over another ten years, Pujols could hold every relevant offensive record before age 40. Albert Pujols is the Player of the Aughts. He might wind up as the Player of the Teens, too.

2ND TEAM: Todd Helton (1466 GP) .331/.436/.569/1.006 - 29 HR, 109 RBI, 113 R, 195 H, 3 SB - 5x All Star, 3x Gold Glove

3RD TEAM: Lance Berkman (1473 GP) .300/.413/.559/.972 - 34 HR, 113 RBI, 106 R, 171 H, 9 SB - 5x All Star

Helton's been so good for so long that I'm sure he wishes Pujols never existed and everyone could remember him as the best first baseman this decade. Actually, that's probably not true because Helton seems like the nicest guy. Berkman presented an interesting case for me. He actually played 850 games in the outfield during this time and just 623 at first base, but his outfield games were spread amongst all three positions. He spent the majority of his time this decade at first base. This unfortunately came at the expense of Derrek Lee.

SECOND BASE: Jeff Kent (1266 GP) .300/.371/.518/.889 - 28 HR, 109 RBI, 97 R, 183 H, 6 SB - '00 N.L. MVP, 4x All Star

I settled on Kent because I didn't feel like any other second baseman made as lasting an impact this decade. Kent did all sorts of damage to pitchers throughout his entire career, and reached his apex from '00-'02, his final three seasons in San Francisco. He won the '00 MVP, averaged 31 homers, posted a .943 OPS and was the emotional leader of a Giants team that came within nine outs of winning the 2002 World Series. He famously clashed with Mr. Bonds and departed for Houston after that season. Everyone forgets, for obvious reasons, the classic '04 NLCS between the 'Stros and Cards, and Kent slugged a Game 5 walk-off dinger in Houston to set up the dramatic final two games in St. Louis. In L.A., he rounded out his career playing second base for a predominantly young team, posting excellent hitting campaigns until hanging 'em up after the '08 NLCS. Kent was never the best defensively, but it should say something that he played 116 games at the keystone corner at age 40. I'm leaving out the elephant in the room here: Kent was a gaping asshole. But he was also a damn good ballplayer.

2ND TEAM: Alfonso Soriano (1313 GP) .279/.326/.510/.836 - 36 HR, 94 RBI, 106 R, 186 H, 26 SB - 7x All Star

3RD TEAM: Luis Castillo (1346 GP) .298/.374/.362/.735 - 4 HR, 45 RBI, 99 R, 186 H, 34 SB - 3x All Star, 3x Gold Glove - '03 World Series Champion

I thought long and hard about this one, and in the end, I just couldn't reward Soriano as the best second baseman of the Aughts. He was a notorious butcher at second before his move to the outfield, he's always struck out way too much for anyone's good, and no manager has ever been able to figure out where to hit him in the order. He also openly defied Frank Robinson before a spring training game, refusing to take the field as an outfielder. That's heinously unforgivable. Enjoy the last five years of that contract, Cubs fans.

THIRD BASE: Alex Rodriguez (1524 GP) .304/.401/.587/.988 - 47 HR, 132 RBI, 127 R, 185 H, 19 SB - 3x A.L. MVP, 8x All Star, 2x Gold Glove (as SS) - '09 World Series Champion

It's been quite a decade for A-Rod. Consider these ten years: he played his final season in Seattle; signed the biggest contract in baseball history for the Rangers; posted three phenomenal (enhanced) years in Arlington; forced a trade to the Red Sox that was nullified by the union; was eventually dealt to New York for Soriano; switched positions; collapsed mid-way through the ALCS and turned an entire sport against him when he slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's hand; won the '05 MVP; was forced to hit 8th in the '06 ALDS against Detroit and cemented his reputation as a playoff choke artist; signed an even bigger contract than his previous one after winning the '07 MVP; dumped his wife and dated Madonna; revealed that he'd used steroids and every Yankees fan "permanently" disowned him; started dating Kate Hudson, settled down as a baseball player and a human being, shed the playoff goat tag and finally earned a World Series ring in '09 while Yankees fans conveniently forgot they hated him. Phew. A-Rod is only 34, has eight years left on his contract, and could wind up battling Pujols atop the record books soon. Now that he has a ring, I'm intrigued to see where his career goes.

2ND TEAM: Chipper Jones (1387 GP) .311/.413/.547/.960 - 32 HR, 108 RBI, 108 R, 180 H, 7 SB - 3x All Star

3RD TEAM: Aramis Ramirez (1320 GP) .289/.347/.513/.861 - 32 HR, 113 RBI, 87 R, 177 H, 2 SB - 2x All Star

Have you ever met a baseball fan that didn't like Chipper Jones? For fans around my age I think he represents the type of player we miss from our early years watching. He's been with only one franchise for almost 20 years, and we've seen less and less of that type of loyalty . You have to respect a guy who wins a batting title at age 36 while playing through all kinds of injuries. We're heading into a golden era for third basemen (Longoria, Wright and Zimmerman to name a few) and I hope they model their careers after Larry Wayne Jones.

SHORTSTOP: Derek Jeter (1500 GP) .317/.387/.456/.844 - 18 HR, 79 RBI, 118 R, 210 H, 24 SB - 8x All Star, 4x Gold Glove, '00 World Series MVP - 2x World Series Champion ('00, '09)

Is Jeter overrated? In many of my angry anti-Yankees rants through the years I've probably said yes. But it seems like we've gotten to a point where we've argued about whether Jeter's overrated that he might now be underrated. He's played in at least 150 games each of the last six seasons. He posted an incredible campaign in '06 and should have been the MVP, collecting 214 hits and driving in 97 runs with an even .900 OPS. His detractors constantly rile against his defense, but he was solid if non-Gold Glove worthy and it's rare for a 35-year-old shortstop to actually improve his defense. There's so many intangible factors that have helped his legend grow, and it's the impossible-to-quantify stuff that often causes Jeter arguments. Where you stand on things like "clutch performances," "leadership qualities" or "annoying fist-pumps" helps determine how you view him. But all this leads to something undeniable: Jeter has been the most consistent player on the most consistent franchise in baseball. That's the real reason why teammates, opposing players, the media, Yankees fans and non-fans alike respect him.

2ND TEAM: Jimmy Rollins (1406 GP) .274/.329/.439/.768 - 17 HR, 72 RBI, 109 R, 188 H, 38 SB - '07 N.L. MVP, 3x All Star, 3x Gold Glove - '08 World Series Champion

3RD TEAM: Miguel Tejada (1581 GP) .297/.347/.481/.827 - 26 HR, 107 RBI, 98 R, 190 H, 3 SB - '02 A.L. MVP, 6x All Star

Rollins earned second team status by being a better all-round player than the better-hitting Tejada. J-Roll experienced his ups and downs with Philly and their fans through the years, but he's a flashy, fun player who I love to root for. I've personally never been a big Miggy fan. The guy leaves a great team in Oakland for $72 million and a lousy team in Baltimore, then spends every winter demanding a trade? As if he didn't know what he was getting into? I wish the O's had kept him on principle.

LEFT FIELD: Manny Ramirez (1358 GP) .317/.419/.599/1.018 - 42 HR, 132 RBI, 112 R, 186 H, 2 SB - 9x All Star, '04 World Series MVP - 2x World Champion ('04, '07)

Oh, Manny. Has baseball ever produced such an enigma, such a savant, such a talent trapped inside such an unpredictable persona? That's the first of so many questions around Manuel Aristides Ramirez. Has he always gotten along with teammates? No. Have his antics, at one time or another, pissed off everyone who cares about baseball? Probably. Is he horrendous in the field? No doubt. Did he cheat, and worse yet, was he stupid enough to get caught? Of course. But deep down, as a fan, would you want him on your team? If you say no, you never watched the guy, especially in his Fenway prime. I can honestly say that when Manny was motivated and healthy, I've never seen a better right-handed hitter. That swing. A picture of perfection, spraying the ball to all fields. He thrived under pressure, hitting .338 with 16 homers in the postseason this decade. Manny reached his zenith once he was paired with David Ortiz, and from '03 through '05 the Red Sox were an unstoppable offensive force because of their two vaunted sluggers. He shoved his way out of town, and was suspended for steroids last year. But you know what? The Dodgers fans didn't care. Manny Ramirez is that good. There's no use in denying it.

2ND TEAM: Carlos Lee (1513 GP) .291/.346/.506/.852 - 32 HR, 110 RBI, 94 R, 180 H, 12 SB - 3x All Star

3RD TEAM: Raul Ibanez (1379 GP) .287/.350/.485/.834 - 24 HR, 99 RBI, 88 R, 167 H, 4 SB - 1 All Star

Alright, it's pretty strange to see Raul Ibanez listed as the third-best left fielder of this decade. But like I mentioned before, Bonds was ineligible based on my criteria, and Berkman played the majority of his games at first base. Beyond that, the Aughts were a surprisingly thin decade for transcendent left fielders. Ibanez has always been a consistent offensive player who just had his best season in '09 at age 37. As for Lee, it's easy to forget how solid he is since being stuck in baseball purgatory in Houston. It's sad when good players make such awful career decisions.

CENTER FIELD: Carlos Beltran (1392 GP) .282/.363/.505/.865 - 30 HR, 107 RBI, 112 R, 174 R, 30 SB - 5x All Star, 3x Gold Glove

The Most Underrated Player of the Aughts was the best center fielder of the last 10 years. Beltran missed significant time in '00 and '09. In between, he never played fewer than 140 games in relative anonymity in Kansas City or on the grand stage of New York. There's nothing Beltran does poorly on the field, whether it's displaying patience at the plate and hitting for terrific power, stealing bases (recording 256 steals this decade while being caught 30 times) and consistently scoring around 100 runs regardless of where he's hitting in the order, and saving runs as one of the best defensive outfielders in the sport despite his lack of hardware. Beltran is a quiet superstar who's become a national hero in Puerto Rico. His best season in New York came in '06, when the Mets won 97 games and he put up 46 homers, a .982 OPS and won the Gold Glove. The horrendous results of the last three seasons for New York has nothing to do with Beltran, who's been terrific when healthy. At 32, Beltran has plenty of excellent seasons left, and hopefully more people will take notice.

2ND TEAM: Torii Hunter (1357 GP) .276/.331/.479/.810 - 27 HR, 101 RBI, 93 R, 168 H, 19 SB - 3x All Star, 9x Gold Glove

3RD TEAM: Johnny Damon (1487 GP) .291/.360/.445/.805 - 18 HR, 80 RBI, 122 R, 191 H, 29 SB - 2x All Star - 2x World Series Champion ('04, '09)

Hunter is another universally beloved player, a gregarious talent who loves nothing more than to work with younger players. He doesn't deserve to be winning Gold Gloves anymore, but hopefully he gets an opportunity to play in the World Series before all is said and done. I suppose the years have softened my hatred for Damon, the creator of the Idiots, but it wasn't easy watching him win the title this year with New York. He's no longer a center fielder, and could find himself DHing somewhere in '10.

RIGHT FIELD: Vladimir Guerrero (1432 GP) .323/.392/.569/.960 - 36 HR, 118 RBI, 105 R, 17 SB - '04 A.L. MVP, 7x All Star

Like Beltran, Vlad began the Aughts in a small market before moving to a big one. The Montreal version of Vlad was certainly something to behold. Here was a 6', 3" behemoth roaming right field with an absolute cannon for an arm, speed on the basepaths and power to all fields. He was the complete package then, nearly going 40/40 in '02 with a league-high 206 hits. He moved to L.A., concentrated more on power, and became one of the most feared hitters in the game. We all know Vlad's greatest attribute; he can hit any pitch, thrown to any location, strike or ball. He's the greatest bad ball hitter ever next to Yogi Berra. Given his inclination to swing at everything, you'd think his strikeout totals would be high. In fact, Vlad never struck out more than 88 times in any of these past 10 seasons and his near-.400 OBP speaks to his amazing ability to make contact. Of course, as Jonathan Papelbon learned in October, you can't throw him a pitch down the middle without getting burned, either. Vlad has lost all his footspeed and entered the DH phase of his career. But his power is still there, and sense of terror he can wield with that bat won't go away soon.

2ND TEAM: Ichiro Suzuki (1426 GP) .333/.378/.434/.811 - 10 HR, 59 RBI, 111 R, 231 H, 39 SB - '01 A.L. MVP and ROY, 9x All Star, 9x Gold Glove

3RD TEAM: Magglio Ordonez (1349 GP) .316/.379/.523/.902 - 28 HR, 115 RBI, 97 R, 194 H, 9 SB - 5x All Star

You're probably thinking I'm an idiot for picking Vlad over Ichiro here. Believe me, I spent a while debating it. I ultimately decided Vlad had a greater on-field impact and Ichiro was the most overrated player of the Aughts. For supposedly being the best leadoff man of the era his .378 OBP isn't exactly terrific. Yes, he collected over 2,000 hits in just nine years. But only 18.7 percent of his hits went for extra bases. Vlad's extra base hit percentage? 38.2. Ichiro's great defensively but not historically exceptional, and he's now overshadowed by Franklin Gutierrez as the M's best fielder. Throw in that Ichiro hasn't been on a good team since his rookie year and Vlad's teams consistently make the playoffs, this isn't as outlandish as it seems. Maybe Ichiro had a bigger cultural impact, but the impact of Vlad's bat was bigger.

DESIGNATED HITTER: David Ortiz (1340 GP) .283/.378/.554/.932 - 38 HR, 123 RBI, 101 R, 166 H, 2 SB - 5x All Star, '04 ALCS MVP - 2x World Series Champion ('04, '07)

Two months into his tenure as Red Sox GM, Theo Epstein plucked the under-utilized Ortiz off the scrap heap for $1.25 million. Within two years, Ortiz would be a beloved hero to an entire region. Generations of Red Sox fans will remember Big Papi for his three walk-off hits during the '04 postseason, keeping the team alive twice while facing elimination at Fenway against the Yankees. As I mentioned during the Manny section, the Manny-Papi tandem presented an offensive wrecking crew rivaled only by Ruth and Gehrig in baseball history. Ortiz's finest hour came during the disappointing '06 campaign, when he broke the team record for homers (54) and the led the league in homers, RBI, walks and total bases. In '09, he got off to a putrid start, not hitting his first home run until six weeks into the season. In the face of many harrowing circumstances, he put together a tremendous four-month stretch, finishing with 28 homers and 99 RBI. None of us know what to expect from Papi going forward. But this production during the best era in Red Sox history, and that gap-toothed grin that captivated fans and teammates alike, will always represent what he meant not just to New England but to the game itself.

Interestingly enough, I couldn't find anyone else that played 1,200 games with the majority coming at DH. The closest was Jim Thome, who was a DH for 639 of 1,367 games. I think this speaks to how Ortiz and the Red Sox have altered the usage of the DH position. It's a common trend now for teams to use one guy as their set DH, and this wasn't done as often in the past (guys like Edgar Martinez, Harold Baines and Don Baylor come to mind). I'll bet next decade we'll have plenty of guys in Ortiz's category.

So that's it. If you've sat and read all of this, you're probably insane, but thanks for reading. If you disagree with any of my choices, voice your opinions in the comments, on Facebook, on Twitter, or wherever else you feel comfortable. Up next will be the All-Decade Starting Rotation, and it will hopefully be done by the end of next week.

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